The Catholic Church divided sin into two principal categories: “venial sins“, which are relatively minor and could be forgiven through any sacramentals or sacraments of the church, and the more severe “capital” or mortal sins.
Mortal sins are believed to destroy the life of grace and create the threat of eternal damnation unless either absolved through the sacrament of Penance or forgiven through perfect contrition on the part of the penitent.
The Seven Deadly Sins never occur as a formal list in the Bible. Some people say they can all be found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5 through 7), but they are not in a simple list there. Others submit Proverbs 6:16-19, but this is a different list, covering pride, lies, murder, evil plans, swiftness in sin, lies again, causing conflict. Clearly not the same.
These sins were identified as a group around the same time as the Bible was being translated into a single language. Rather than these sins being identified in a single place in the Bible, they are found all through it, from Genesis to Revelation. The letters of the New Testament mention all of these, and many others as well.
Catholic teaching broke sin into 2 classifications, venial and mortal sin. The 7 deadly sins are capital or mortal sins.
The Catechism has many Scriptural references in the section that lists the “Seven Deadly Sins.” It is well to remember that the Scriptures come from the Jewish and Christian Churches, not the other way around. In both cases, faith preceded the writing.
The idea of 7 deadly sins is not spoken of in the bible directly but was used in early Christian teachings to illuminate the idea that man was prone to sin.
Beginning in the early 14th century, the popularity of the seven deadly sins as a theme among European artists of the time eventually helped to ingrain them in many areas of Catholic culture and Catholic consciousness in general throughout the world. One means of such ingraining was the creation of the mnemonic “SALIGIA” based on the first letters in Latin of the seven deadly sins: superbia, avaritia, luxuria, invidia, gula, ira, acedia.
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Catholic layman who wrote “The Divine Comedy,” which is really three epic poems in Italian: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso,” which are about Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven/Paradise, respectively. In “Purgatorio,” Dante places each of the seven sins on a level*, with the higher levels closer to Paradise and the lower ones closer to Hell. The numbers in parentheses, in the table below, indicate the level where they are found in “Purgatorio.” Dante considers these sins as offenses against love, and groups them accordingly:
Perverted Love: Pride, Envy, Wrath/Anger
Insufficient Love: Sloth
Excessive Love of Earthly Goods: Avarice/Greed, Gluttony, Lust
The modern Roman Catholic Catechism lists the sins as: “pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth/acedia”. Each of the seven deadly sins now also has an opposite among corresponding seven holy virtues (sometimes also referred to as the contrary virtues). In parallel order to the sins they oppose, the seven holy virtues are humility, charity, kindness, patience, chastity, temperance, and diligence.
Listed in the same order used by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, and later by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, the seven deadly sins are as follows: luxuria (extravagance, later lust), gula (gluttony), avaritia (greed), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), invidia (envy), and superbia (pride).
In almost every list Pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris, is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). Dante’s definition was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour.” In Divine Comedy, the penitents were forced to walk with stone slabs bearing down on their backs to induce feelings of humility.
Opposing Virtue: Humility
Seeing ourselves as we are and not comparing ourselves to others is humility. Pride and vanity are competitive. If someone else’s pride really bothers you, you have a lot of pride.
Greed (Latin, avaritia), also known as avarice or covetousness, is, like lust and gluttony, a sin of excess. However, greed (as seen by the church) is applied to a very excessive or rapacious desire and pursuit of wealth, status, and power. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed was “a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” In Dante’s Purgatory, the penitents were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts.
“Avarice” is more of a blanket term that can describe many other examples of greedy behavior. These include disloyalty, deliberate betrayal, or treason, especially for personal gain, for example through bribery . Scavenging and hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that may be inspired by greed. Such misdeeds can include simony, where one profits from soliciting goods within the actual confines of a church.
Opposing Virtue: Generosity
This is about more than money. Generosity means letting others get the credit or praise. It is giving without having expectations of the other person. Greed wants to get its “fair share” or a bit more.
Like greed, Envy (Latin, invidia) may be characterized by an insatiable desire; they differ, however, for two main reasons. First, greed is largely associated with material goods, where as envy may apply more generally. Second, those who commit the sin of envy resent that another person has something they perceive themselves as lacking, and wish the other person to be deprived of it. Dante defined this as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs.” In Dante’s Purgatory, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. Aquinas described envy as “sorrow for another’s good”
Opposing Virtue: Love
“Love is patient, love is kind…” Love actively seeks the good of others for their sake. Envy resents the good others receive or even might receive. Envy is almost indistinguishable from pride at times.
Wrath (Latin, ira), also known as anger or “rage” “pig”, may be described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger. These feelings can manifest as vehement denial of the truth, both to others and in the form of self-denial, impatience with the procedure of law, and the desire to seek revenge outside of the workings of the justice system (such as engaging in vigilantism) and generally wishing to do evil or harm to others. The transgressions born of vengeance are among the most serious, including murder, assault, and in extreme cases, genocide. Wrath is the only sin not necessarily associated with selfishness or self-interest (although one can of course be wrathful for selfish reasons, such as jealousy, closely related to the sin of envy). Dante described vengeance as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite“. In its original form, the sin of wrath also encompassed anger pointed internally rather than externally. Thus suicide was deemed as the ultimate, albeit tragic, expression of wrath directed inwardly, a final rejection of God’s gifts.
Opposing Virtue: Kindness
Kindness means taking the tender approach, with patience and compassion. Anger is often our first reaction to the problems of others. Impatience with the faults of others is related to this.
Lust or lechery is usually thought of as excessive thoughts or desires of a sexual nature. Aristotle’s criterion was excessive love of others, which therefore rendered love and devotion to God as secondary. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the penitent walks within flames to purge himself of lustful/sexual thoughts and feelings. In Dante’s “Inferno”, unforgiven souls of the sin of lust are blown about in restless hurricane like winds symbolic of their own lack of self control to their lustful passions in earthly life.
Opposing Virtue: Self control
Self control and self mastery prevent pleasure from killing the soul by suffocation. Legitimate pleasures are controlled in the same way an athlete’s muscles are: for maximum efficiency without damage. Lust is the self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. Sex, power, or image can be used well, but they tend to go out of control.
Derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow, gluttony (Latin, gula) is the over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste. In the Christian religions, it is considered a sin because of the excessive desire for food, or its withholding from the needy.
Depending on the culture, it can be seen as either a vice or a sign of status. Where food is relatively scarce, being able to eat well might be something to take pride in. But in an area where food is routinely plentiful, it may be considered a sign of self-control to resist the temptation to over-indulge.
Opposed: Faith & Temperance
Temperance accepts the natural limits of pleasures and preserves this natural balance. This does not pertain only to food, but to entertainment and other legitimate goods, and even the company of others.
Gradually, the focus came to be on the consequences of acedia, rather than the cause, and so, by the 17th century, the exact deadly sin referred to was believed to be the failure to utilize one’s talents and gifts.
In practice, it came to be closer to sloth (Latin, Socordia) than acedia. Even in Dante’s time there were signs of this change; in his Purgatorio he had portrayed the penance for acedia as running continuously at top speed.
The modern view goes further, regarding laziness and indifference as the sin at the heart of the matter. Since this contrasts with a more willful failure to, for example, love God and his works, sloth is often seen as being considerably less serious than the other sins, more a sin of omission than of commission.
Opposing Virtue: Zeal
Zeal is the energetic response of the heart to God’s commands. The other sins work together to deaden the spiritual senses so we first become slow to respond to God and then drift completely into the sleep of complacency.
* Numbers in parenthesis indicate position in Dante.
Dante seems to have had a well-formed conscience. His emphasis on love, in the sense of Christian charity, is impressive. That is not to claim some sort of sainthood, but his ideas were very much in keeping with the teaching of the Catholic Church at a time when the practice of the clergy often fell short of the doctrine.